Great Omaha Pow-Wow dance of the Cheyennes in Montana, circa. 1891

Wiley Bros./Miles City, MT/Courtesy Library of Congress

Great Omaha Pow-Wow dance of the Cheyennes in Montana, circa. 1891

Every Step They Take: Staying Connected for Generations Through Dance

When people dance, they stay connected: One earth, one mother, moving to the heartbeat of the drum.

It is said that the word “pow wow,” comes from an Algonquian word pau wau, meaning, “he dreams.”

The people have kept the dream alive since creation. There is no exact record, but the pow wow is thought to have begun with the Pawnee Nation as a religious ceremony filled with personal and religious significance.

It is said that the modern day pow wow evolved from the Grass Dance Societies that formed during the early 1800s. With the coming of the reservation system, the people were forced to adapt it without sacrificing meaning. There was a time when tribal customs and religious ceremonies were outlawed by the government, but the grass dance was one of the few celebrations allowed. It became a way to maintain tribal customs that were slowly vanishing.

Many of the Plains tribes formed alliances. The songs, dances and ceremonies by each nation were exchanged, laying the groundwork for the “inter-tribal pow wow.”

What began as a ceremony giving thanks for a successful hunt or harvest, or preparation for upcoming battle or reenactment of a brave deed, moved forward with the same sense of cultural and personal pride. Onetime enemies or cultures not known to one another began to come together as one.

At least 67 tribes have been historically associated with the modern-day state of Oklahoma. It is said that the first inter-tribal pow wow in Oklahoma was the Ponca Powwow in northern Indian Territory around 1879. The tribes united. They traveled from as far as 100 miles by horseback to dance, to sing, to remember the old ways and bring them into a new time. Nations at the first Ponca dance included the Omaha, Ponca, Kaw, Osage, Pawnee and Otoe-Missouria. The men’s warrior dances (helushka) were showcased in the early Ponca Powwows as well.

Despite the forced changes all around them, these events inspired cultural and personal pride in American Indians. It allowed the tribes, families and individuals to come together for feasting, to hear their languages spoken, to sing and dance. The people upheld tribal customs with dignity and honor.

The American flag took on new meaning at these gatherings. Ancient warrior society protocol began to reemerge to honor the modern-day warriors. Servicemen and veterans danced in atraditional way. Even today, should an eagle feather fall from a dancer’s regalia during a dance, only a veteran may retrieve it and take to its rightful owner.

Since the beginning, it was passed down from generation to generation that men did most of the dancing. But over time, women have taken their place in the sacred circle.

The dance steps are ancient and timeless. Some imitate an animal’s gait and behavior. Others, like the grass dance, mimic the wind blowing through the buffalo grass so prevalent on the plains. Each step has purpose. Each step honors the Creator’s work.

There are several styles of dance used in competition: men’s and women’s traditional; men’s fancy dance and women’s fancy shawl, the grass dance (men only), and the jingle dress dance (women only).

As with prayer, there is no one way to honor the Creator. There is no one way to dance in the traditional manner. Tribal affiliation, personal preference and spiritual values come out through the steps of each individual dancer. In the men’s traditional, the dancer moves his foot forward, tapping it twice. As his foot presses forward, the first tap is lighter as he shifts his weight forward on the second step. It is said that the motion honors the animals with the imitation of their stride: two human motions per leg give honor to the four-leggeds.

The men’s traditional dancers are the protectors and preservers of the traditional ways, with their double-eagle feather bustles and their high-kicking steps. Each man tells a particular story through his motions. As they dance, the steps taught to them by their fathers or grandfathers are deliberate, telling the story of the hunt or an act of courage.Done properly, the audience can interpret and follow along with the movement of each storyteller.

The dance regalia is personal. Dancers might wear eagle feathers, a roach, a breastplate or maybe carry a fan. They might also include a single back bustle with cloth trailers.

The men’s grass dancers wear long, colorful fringes to honor the open prairies the buffalo hunters lived upon. Strands of yarn or ribbon, hanging from their arms and waist represent grass in the spirit world. Their graceful steps flow like the rippling prairie grasses. 

Some call the men’s southern traditional dancers the “southern straight dancers.” They wear cotton, broadcloth or buckskin pants, a shirt and a breastplate of bones. They also include a roach headdress of porcupine hair and deer-tail hair.

It is not uncommon for a pow wow MC to introduce a fancy dancer as Mr. Electric because of the tremendous energy it takes for this particular style.

The fancy dance is a post-World War II addition, combining traditional with Wild West Show characteristics to both entertain and express the raw energy of the youth of today. Their regalia is brilliantly colored with double bustles on the back. They have small bustles on the arms. The spinning, twirling driving energy of the dancer is contagious to those who sing and drum, as well as the audience.

In the old days, the pow wow was tribal-specific and no women were allowed to actively participate. With the changing times and the shared heritage, women took their respected place in the sacred circle.

Women’s Traditional involves a slow-moving or non-moving bouncing step, rhythmically swaying to the beat of the drum. Their dresses are made of buckskin, wool or other material decorated with bead- or quill-work. Dancers might include shells, teeth or antler decorations. The colors are subtle, more intoned with Father Sky or Mother Earth.

The southern traditional dancer’s step is a slow, graceful walk to the sound of the drum. The motion of the shawl should be in harmony with the motion of the body and with the drumbeat. The southern dancers wear cloth, ribbons, beads and silver-work in their various styles of attire.

It is said that the jingle dance is a gift from the Creator to the Ojibway for a healing ceremony. The dress features tiers of seven rows of jingle cones. Original noise-making materials dancers might have used would include bird bones or deer hooves. As time went on, bullet cartridges or metal lids of Copenhagen tobacco cans were used.

Personal presentation is important. The steps are slow, intricate, with controlled footwork that mirrors the original style of the dance.

Like the display of perpetual motion put on by Mr. Electric, young women have proven they can step it up with the best of them. The women’s fancy shawl is a dance of constant whirl of beauty and grace. It is one of endurance and agility as well as showmanship.

The dance features a fast pace and the distinctive brightly colored shawl. The regalia utilizes designs of the past, as well as new materials like sequins, ribbon, and fabric, giving each dancer a personal identity.

The modern-day pow wow is a connection to a time when the only footprints on the land were made by moccasins. It is a time-honored tribute to ancient ceremony, carrying the past into the future for generations to come.

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Every Step They Take: Staying Connected for Generations Through Dance

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